Why Atheists Lose Debates (3 examples provided)

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 18, 2010 in Criticism of Atheists,Debates

Earlier, I wrote about Why Atheists Lose Debates.

I said atheists lose for lack of time. The theist’s explanation for fine-tuning (“God did it”) requires 3 seconds to say, while the atheist’s scientific explanation could take over an hour. In a debate, the clock is everything.

But that’s not all. I also said that atheists lose debates because they often present an inferior case. I clarified:

Maybe all the theist’s arguments are terrible, but to win the debate, the atheist has to show why his arguments are terrible, and (in some way) must give some good arguments for his own position. The atheist often does poorly in boththese respects.

Atheists often prove themselves to be woefully incompetent in philosophy of religion, epistemology, naturalistic philosophy, and all topics of philosophy relevant to the debate… The atheist loses the chess match because he prepared for the debate by reading Wikipedia rather than Plantinga, Rowe, Alston, Oppy, and so on. A theist like Craig, on the other hand, has read all these thinkers many times over.

In my original post, I gave two generalized examples. Commenters asked for specific examples.

Okay, here are three specific examples of how atheists present an inferior case in debates with theists.

Example #1: Bart Ehrman on Miracles

In his debate with William Lane Craig, scholar Bart Ehrman presented something like Hume’s argument against miracles. Ehrman argued that an historian can’t show that a miracle (like the resurrection of Jesus) occurred in the past: Historians try to show what probably happened in the past, but by definition a miracle is the least likely kind of thing that could happen. If someone in history reported a miracle, it’s always more likely they were confused or lying than that the miracle occurred. Confusion and lying happens all the time, whereas miracles by definition are extremely unlikely.

Craig responded by explaining how, contra Hume and Ehrman, Bayes’ Theorem could be used to show that a miracle occurred in the past. (See page 14 and onwards in the transcript.)

Ehrman replied by saying:

…if you think I’m going tochange my mind because you have mathematical proof for the existence of God, I’m sorry, but it ain’t gonna happen!

Craig never offered a mathematical proof of God. Either Ehrman’s remark was a rhetorical diversion, or he really had no idea what Craig was talking about. That would also explain why Ehrman never tried to reply to Craig’s point about Bayes Theorem, or Craig’s explanation of “Bart’s Blunder” when it came to probability theory.

So what is going on here?

On this point, it looks like Ehrman just wasn’t prepared. He defended an argument from Hume but was completely shut down by Craig’s Bayesian analysis. But here’s the thing. Most of the papers published on Hume’s “Of Miracles” in the past decade have considered Hume’s argument in the context of Bayes’ Theorem! Craig knows this, and has read the relevant literature. Ehrman, apparently, has not.

What could Ehrman have done to better prepare? He could have contacted a philosopher of religion for help, or even an amateur like myself. The Bayesian reply to John Earman (on whom Craig was drawing), along with a proof of Hume’s argument concerning miracles in symbolic logic, can be found in pages 298-341 in J.H. Sobel’s Logic and Theism. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Ehrman has never heard of Jordan Howard Sobel.

Those who want to see what a short reply to (but not a refutation of) Craig’s Bayesian analysis could look like, see here.

So what have I shown? I haven’t shown that Ehrman lost the debate. I’m not doing full-length debate reviews in this post. Instead, I have provided an example of how atheists lose certain arguments – and with enough bad arguments, whole debates – because of their own ignorance of the subject material. Remember, it might be that Craig’s Bayesian analysis is wrong. But Ehrman didn’t show it to be wrong. He just stood by and looked ignorant. That’s why I say he presented the weaker case on this point.

Example #2: Christopher Hitchens

Ehrman was, at least, a scholar of New Testament history entering a debate on the resurrection of Jesus. Christopher Hitchens, however, has no expertise in New Testament studies or philosophy, and decided to debate someone who has a Ph.D. in each field and decades of debating experience: William Lane Craig.

Hitchens made lots of good points, even quoting Craig’s book Reasonable Faith, but let’s zoom in on one of his responses to Craig’s arguments from cosmology.

Hitchens admitted he is no physicist and that he offers only “lay objections.” But why? Why not call up some physicists and philosophers to find out what is really wrong with Craig’s arguments? Why not familiarize yourself a bit before throwing ignorant objections into the air in a major debate?

One of his objections was:

Who designed the Designer? Don’t you run the risk… of asking “Well, where does that come from? And where does that come from?” and running into an infinite regress?

But this is an elementary misunderstanding in philosophy of science. Why? Because science faces the exact same problem. It’s called the “why regress” because no matter what explanation is given of something, you can always still ask “Why?” (like Mindy from Animaniacs). The example I gave in my talk at UCSD went like this:

CHILD: Daddy, why do birds fly?

DAD: To get food for the baby birds.

CHILD: Why?

DAD: So the baby birds don’t starve.

CHILD: Why?

DAD: Because they need energy to keep living.

CHILD: Why?

DAD: …I dunno, Daddy’s tired. Go play with your toys.

The truth is, even if a whole panel of biologists and chemists and physicists were assembled to answer this child’s questioning, there would still come a time when none of them could answer the “Why” question.

Scientists know this. In the 19th century they proposed “atoms” to explain certain observations, and they were right, even though they had no idea what could explain atoms themselves. Later, scientists posited quarks and electrons to explain certain observations, and they were right, even though they had no idea what could explain quarks and electrons themselves. This is how science works.

So if, like Hitchens, we were to require that a good explanation for something must itself be explained, this requirement would literally destroy science. And I don’t think that’s what Hitchens is trying to do.

I have found that it’s hard for atheists to give up this why-regress objection to theism, which is “sacred cow” argument atheists don’t want to stop using. Because giving the argument against the why-regress objection often doesn’t do the job, I’ve found that I need to beat atheists over the head by quoting authorities, which they often find more persuasive than argument. So here we go, four atheist philosophers on the why-regress:

First, atheist philosopher of science Peter Lipton:

The why-regress is a feature of the logic of explanation that many of us discovered as children, to our parents’ cost. I vividly recall the moment it dawned on me that, whatever my mother’s answer to my latest why-question, I could simply retort by asking ‘Why?’ of the answer itself, until my mother ran out of answers or patience…

[But] explanations need not themselves be understood. A drought may explain a poor crop, even if we don’t understand why there was a drought; I understand why you didn’t come to the party if you explain you had a bad headache, even if I have no idea why you had a headache; the big bang explains the background radiation, even if the big bang is itself inexplicable, and so on…

…the [why-regress] argument brings out the important facts that explanations can be chained, and that what explains need not itself be understood…1

Or consider atheist philosopher of science Michael Friedman. Notice that he assumes our explanations may not themselves be explained, but that explanations succeed in increasing our understanding of the world:

[Consider] the old argument that science is incapable of explaining anything because the basic phenomena to which others are reduced are themselves neither explained nor understood. According to this argument, science merely transfers our puzzlement from one phenomenon to another… The answer, as I see it, is that.. we don’t simply replace one phenomenon with another. We replace one phenomenon with amore comprehensive phenomenon, and thereby… genuinely increase our understanding of the world.2

And here’s atheist philosopher of religion Gregory Dawes:

Richard Dawkins, for instance, writes that to explain the machinery of life “by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing.” Why? Because it “leaves unexplained the origin of the designer.”

…[Dawkins' idea is] that religious explanations are unacceptable because they leave unexplained the existence of their explanans (God). Dawkins apparently assumes that every successful explanation should also explain its own explanans. But this is an unreasonable demand. Many of our most successful explanations raise new puzzles and present us with new questions to be answered.3

Finally, atheist philosopher of metaphysics John Post:

…there cannot be an infinite regress of explanations… Again the reasons are not practical, such as the finiteness of our faculties, but logic or conceptual, entailed by the very notions of explanations involved. Even for an infinite intellect, regresses of such explanations must end.4

Again, it would be nice if Hitchens had decided to do a bit of research before debating William Lane Craig. Craig trounced Hitchens in response to bad arguments like the example I gave.

Example #3: Jim Corbett on the Moral Argument

In his debate with atheist Jim Corbett, apologist Sean McDowell offered the moral argument for God’s existence:

  1. If God does not exist then objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Sean even took the time to explain that atheists can be moral, and they can know moral truths. What’s he said is that if God doesn’t exist, there is no objective foundation for moral truths.

Corbett replied with wholly irrelevant points:

  1. Does Sean McDowell pretend to know God’s will better than the celebrated theologians of ages past who tortured unbelievers or held slaves?
  2. Some research shows that organic atheism is correlated with societal health.

…along with other points irrelevant to Sean’s actual argument. Jim then concluded:

Is there another explanation for morality? I’m sure there are many. And the truth is, I’m not an expert in religion or morality.

So at least Corbett admits he’s ignorant of the subject he agreed to debate. But I have a suggestion. Either (1) don’t debate a subject you know nothing about, or (2) prepare for that debate so you do know something about it.

For example, I would have advised Jim Corbett to read Erik Wielenberg’s work on why even non-natural moral realism is more plausible than theistic moral realism.

Conclusions

If you want more examples, see here, here, here, and here.

I do not expect every atheist debater to be fluent in Bayesian epistemology or to be an expert in meta-ethics. But I would like to see atheist debaters stop embarrassing themselves by being so argumentatively outgunned by their theistic opponents. Atheists: Do a bit of research and preparation before entering a debate. Study the relevant arguments. Ask for advice from people who know more about the subjects of debate than you do.

That’s all I ask.

  1. Inference to the Best Explanation, page 24. []
  2. Explanation and Scientific Understanding,” pages 18-19. []
  3. Theism and Explanation, pages 15-16. []
  4. Infinite Regresses of Justification and Explanation,” page 32. []

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{ 70 comments… read them below or add one }

smijer September 18, 2010 at 4:39 am

Very well said. I think that there is a certain amount of hubris some atheists take into debate with theists. “I know I’m right” somehow translates into “I can’t lose”.

On example# 2. I think the problem has actually evolved over time. There are cosmological arguments that rely on the contradictory logic that everything must have a cause, therefore God must exist as a first cause. Craig’s tack has reduced the use of this logic, since he stipulates only things that “have a beginning” must be caused. But, when it comes up, then turning it back on itself in this way reveals its weaknesses as an argument for an un-caused God. So there is a legitimate use for this type of argument. The problem is that too many people adopted it without understanding its function and took it as an argument against God in its own right.

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Joel September 18, 2010 at 4:54 am

I agree that atheists often lose debates to theists, especially if you pit the atheist non-philosopher against the theistic philosopher. But to be fair, this happens to theists too, who can also be uninformed etc.

No doubt the reason why the flaws of atheist debaters are so much more apparent (if they are), is, as many people realize, because the field of philosophy of religion is naturally dominated by the religious; they are defending something precious to them. The atheist usually will not spend, or be expected to spend, large amounts of effort and time on a topic her or she thinks is as fatuous and vacuous as leprechaun study. Cue Parsons et al. Same is true in ethics, where we have hordes of defenders of morality. I have not once met a philosopher who specialized in ethics, and deny the existence of morality. Whether cognitivist or non-cognitivist, realist or anti-realist, objectivist or subjectivist, they all agree that morality exists in some form or another.

In any case, since there are simply more theistic philosophers, there is a higher chance for the non-philosopher atheist to meet such theists and be correspondingly crushed; meanwhile, the non-philosopher theist is extremely unlikely to meet an atheist philosopher.

But that aside, I think that there is merit in the complexity-improbability argument (i.e. the Boeing 747 argument). What most atheists forget is to remind his or her opponent, as well as the audience, that the choice of lies not between designer and no explanation at all; rather, the choice is between designer, and skyhook. Yes, a designer can be infered from some phenomena, but it is always inferior to the skyhook explanation, wherein a simple cause is proffered. Still, it is true that you can’t just keep spamming “why” to avoid the God explanation.

And of course, there is TaiChi’s clever reformulation of the B747 argument with Kolmogorov complexity and Solomonoff algorithmic probability. In terms of Kolmogorov complexity, the complexity of the object is the length of the shortest possible description of the object, in some universal description language. God has his string length, and so does the universe; but we have to note that, if God is the creator of the universe, he would also have to conceive of the universe, such that his complexity is always of a higher level than the universe’s. That is, he has a longer string.

And we can translate this complexity into improbability. Assuming for the sake of simplicity that the descriptions are in binary, we can run the string through some extremely simple/crude Turing machine that generates “1″s or “0″s on a moving tape. The longer the string (the more complex the object is), the less likely the machine will generate its full description. Ergo, God, with his longer string and higher complexity, is less probable than the universe itself.

This, at least, should push us towards some naturalistic explanation, instead of using !poof magic or !Wizard.

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Joel September 18, 2010 at 5:01 am

Oops. I didn’t mean “skyhook”. I meant “crane”. The intelligent designer is the skyhook, the improbable explanation, while the crane is the simpler explanation (relative to the phenomena).

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Garren September 18, 2010 at 5:40 am

Christopher Hitchens displays a similar total lack of understanding of the moral argument in the film Collision. I felt every bit as frustrated as Douglas Wilson when Hitchens kept responding as if it were a question about atheists being able to know or do good.

Such responses miss the point because apologists are claiming that atheists only have moral knowledge or can do good BECAUSE there actually is a God. In other words, the claim is that the existence of God — not necessarily belief in God — is presupposed for morality.

Of course this puts atheists at a rhetorical disadvantage because the most obvious way to respond is to give a secular account of the nature of morality, which is a contentious area among atheists. Meanwhile Christian audiences are usually satisfied with vague appeals to God as the foundation of morality.

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mojo.rhythm September 18, 2010 at 6:57 am

I’ve noticed that atheists unfortunately incline themselves to attacking theistic arguments in broad brush strokes, with dismissive claims such as “science has found no evidence of the supernatural” etc.

Also, with fine tuning, it seems the order of the day for a lazy atheist debater is to just completely pass over attacking the huge probability assumptions inherent in the structure of the argument, and offer up a rejoinder like:

a. I deny fine tuning!
b. The multiverse

I’ve also noticed that not a single damned atheist has attacked Craig’s sophomoric redefining of the words “atheist” and “agnostic” in order to shift an equal burden of proof onto the atheist. Does anyone else find this just as annoying as I do? It is just like that YouTube user ShockOfGod who has made a name for himself by asking “what proof and evidence do you have that atheism is accurate and correct?”

What’s next?

“what proof and evidence can you provide that there is no Area 51/flying carpets/talking clouds/evil twin of Barack Obama/Death Star/magic sandwich that cures testicular cancer?”

I conclude on that light-hearted note. May the blessed meat and pickles be with you brothers and sisters and may the holy mayonnaise be upon them.

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Dan September 18, 2010 at 7:18 am

This is why I still want to see a debate between two panels of people on either side. The “Atheist” side made up of something like a cosmologist, a biologist, an astrophysicist…

The other side, the “theist” side made up of an Old Testament Scholar, New Testament Scholar, etc…

So this way, depending on where the debate goes, an expert from either side can get up to talk, and we could hear the best from both sides.

I know that in many debates I’ve seen, the speaker, while on one topic, will sometimes have to mention a separate topic to help further their point, but that separate topic is never delved into much. So I think this format I’m wishing for would help that.

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Joel September 18, 2010 at 7:35 am

Also, with fine tuning, it seems the order of the day for a lazy atheist debater is to just completely pass over attacking the huge probability assumptions inherent in the structure of the argument, and offer up a rejoinder like:
a. I deny fine tuning!
b. The multiverse

I don’t think those two objections to the fine-tuning argument are poor, or weak, though their delivery may be (especially for the multiverse).

Assuming the argument is something like Craig’s we can see that denying fine tuning is one of the more intuitive and emotionally effective strategies.

P1) Phenomena X is fine-tuned for life.
P2) This fine-tuning is due to physical necessity, chance, or design.
P3) Not PN or chance.
C) Design.

There seem to be different strategies. Against P1, we can 1) Deny fine-tuning by positing “unfriendliness” in the vein of the problem of evil. Against P2, we can 2) Deny the intrinsic value of life, and so the need for explaning anything, or 3) Attack design in the Humean vein, by pointing out that inferring a designer requires prior knowledge of such acts (e.g. I know humans build houses, I see a house, so I infer human action). Against P3, we can 4) Argue for physical necessity (e.g. Stenger’s explanations of the proton to electron mass ratio, and so on), 5) Argue for chance through positing a range of values for the constants, that still permit life, or 6) Posit multiverse to crank the success of chance to 100%.

It’s just absurdly easy to throw out supposed falsifications of fine-tuning by citing inexpensive facts like the universe being 99.99…% hostile to life etc. It is intuitive and easy to understand. Or at least, that is why, I think, it’s often used.

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Emil Karlsson September 18, 2010 at 8:23 am

Yet again, Luke makes a straw man out of a valid atheist argument. One wonders if he has at all tried to understand the arguments instead of dismissing them out of hand, thereby committing the same error he so vehemently accuse other atheists of doing. Logical inconsistency seems to be a recurring theme.

The regress argument against gods is that positing a god is circular, since it presumes that which it is attempting to explain. For instance, a theist might try to explain rationality by positing a supreme rationality in the form of a deity. However, this explanation presupposes the existence of rationality, the very thing the explanation is suppose to explain! Then, it is reasonable to point out this circularity and ask “if rationality itself needs an explanation, then what is the explanation of gods rationality (a.k.a regress argument)”?

Science is immune to this objection since scientific explanations are by definition not circular i.e. for instance, rationality is explained in terms of entities that are arational (such as brain cells).

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manicstreetpreacher September 18, 2010 at 8:24 am

Luke, I cannot believe you are giving Craig’s use of Bayes Theorem in the Ehrman debate blog time! I agree with you that Ehrman did not understand it, but then again neither would practically the entire audience. I doubt whether even Craig understood it!

Ehrman did exactly the right thing by not responding to it and brushing it aside as a distraction technique for which Craig is famed. Rather like his ridiculous sound bite of the mind bogglingly improbability of evolution providing evidence for the existence of God he pulled in the Hitchens and Zindler debates.

Dawkins has Craig down absolutely right as a “professional debater” who is not worth taking seriously. I doubt whether Craig believes some of his own arguments; they sound clever and sophisticated in front of an audience and can be tricky to answer in the heat of the moment, which is exactly what Craig wants.

As Ehrman said in the Q & A, Richard Swinburne’s calculation of the probability of the truth of Christian doctrine being 0.97 is the kind of argument that will convince people who want to be convinced.

Enough said.

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Dan Grossenbach September 18, 2010 at 8:43 am

Good work giving strong honest criticism to your atheist brethren, Luke. If it weren’t for people like you, it would be too easy to claim Christianity is true without having to give reasons (blind faith). That’s a 20th century notion and not a biblical concept of faith that needs to be corrected. Such important issues need to have brave intelligent people who point out bad arguments all the way around. In that regard, atheist thinkers keep Christian apologists accountable which builds up a much stronger church. And that’s a good thing. I too hope to see more atheists wrestle with the issues in the public square. No one likes to see good debate points go unanswered, especially when they’re on your side. In any event, keep seeking truth and calling out those who don’t.

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Bill Maher September 18, 2010 at 8:47 am

I also think the problem is that many people who do these debates that are atheists are non-religion philosophers and scientists, while the Christians are apologists who literally went to school to defend Christianity. This means the atheist is likely years behind on reading on the topic and in debate technique.

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Ajay September 18, 2010 at 9:14 am

The one thing worth noting is that there are thousands of schools, colleges and universities that have been cranking out these theistic arguments and thinkers for a long, long time. Institutionally, it’s no contest. It’s not an excuse for poor performances, but perhaps another plausible explanation.

That being said, atheists could definitely do better in these debates. Maybe the tide will turn someday soon.

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Hermes September 18, 2010 at 9:32 am

[ Debates are won or lost often during the planning stage as a tactical maneuver. This is one reason why, on occasion, the topic has been changed often unilaterally with the ascent of the organizer just before the debate begins. ]

With that out of the way, here’s the elephant in the go to meetin’ hall. ]

* * *

Much if not all of these debates depend on gods being presumed to be the default position by the audience, thus the burden of proof is left with anyone who does not take that position. Often, the presuption is a hybrid deity made of bits and pieces of many cultures, theologies, philosophies, and social groups as well as unspecified personal intuitions.

The common conceptions of deities are ancient, reaching back thousands to tens of thousands of years. The archetypes that are taken most seriously by the audiences are one or a combination of the following;

* A deistic philosophical (non-Yahweh) creator that tossed the boomerang and is awaiting for it to return.

* A platonic perfect ideal that defines reality.

* A pantheistic mother nature style deity that is said to be ‘good, evident in nature, and all around us’.

When a named deity shows up it morphs from one or more of these three and drops in as if it has always been there and is in total concurrence with specific ideologies often referenced in a religious text, but not other ones from other groups or differing believers, but not entirely limited to those texts.

It’s hard if not impossible to argue against a potential deistic or contradictorily potential pantheistic entity, though the weak member of the trio — Platonic forms — are as the kids in ancient Rome might have said if they had their own sitcoms — so BCE.

Once someone claims either the deistic or pantheistic deity type for the conversation, what evidence applies to challenge them? None that I know of, as there is equally no evidence to support them beyond the assertion that they are — just so — while being impervious to unambiguous observation.

As such, the demonstration of a deity being more likely than not let alone being actually shown to exist is removed either explicitly as a part of the structure of the debate, or implicitly by the audience that consists mainly of theists or has, as Dennett points out, a belief in belief and wants to preferentially presume a deity is there even if they don’t personally have that as a belief.

So, do you just point out the presumption of deistic and/or pantheistic deities? Who would you point it out to? The other speaker? A debate is not a discussion, so you’re not going to get a warm reception there. The audience? Who likes to be told that they should drop a bias they currently hold — either through emotional, logical, or social means?

But does this catch-22 apply to the 3 examples Luke has elucidated? In my next post, I’ll address that question.

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Hermes September 18, 2010 at 9:35 am

As promised, I’ll briefly discuss the three examples Luke provided.

1. Well, ignoring for the moment the title of the debate, “Is there historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus?”, no. Not directly. The presumption was on an attribute of a deity; miracles. Yet, if miracles (unspecified) actually did happen (not demonstrated) they are not necessarily tied to a deity, so if deities are excised from the conversation then miracles can be addressed as events on their own. Though, the point of miracles was to offer evidence for deities so doing that would not make much sense. A babby elephant.

2. The title — Does God Exist? — is presumptive on the Christian deity, capital G-God, but otherwise is neutral. That said, I think my previous post applies here.

In the case of any investigation, there will always be a point that ignorance shows up because we can’t know everything. It shows up quickly when a subject is not known deeply. It shows up later when it is known in detail. Yet, if gods were descriptive of reality then there would be a general consensus on what type and how many gods there are and how they exist. Conversely, a Hindu physicist or a Catholic physicist can insert their own religious suppositions at the point of ignorance or at some point further on, but they don’t do the same thing for known facts even if they hold to them humbly and tentatively.

3. Yes. Corbett, as Luke points out, took a debate on a topic he knew nothing about and where the topic was explicit; “Is God the Best Explanation for Moral Values.”

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lukeprog September 18, 2010 at 9:42 am

Ajay,

Yes, that’s also true.

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Paul September 18, 2010 at 10:20 am

This article echoes the reasons why I have a very low opinion of the whole notion of formal debate, especially on emotive issues. So.. why bother with debates at all?

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Silver Bullet September 18, 2010 at 10:47 am

I think Bill Maher and Ajay make important points.

It seems to me that the atheist debaters have rich interests beyond just defending atheism – consider Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet, Morgentaler, Corbett, etc. Think of the contributions they have made or are making outside of just helping to demonstrate how preposterous Christianity is.

I agree with you Luke, that if they engage in a debate, they should prepare properly. Having said that, they’re just too smart to bother wasting their time on all of the variants of all the crappy arguments, and their debating opponents tricky tactics. Just think of the philosophers you’ve recently mentioned who are giving up on philosophy of religion – same thing.

But you’re right … if they are going to engage in the debate, they should do a better job of preparing, especially if they are going up against the embodiment of the hypocrisy of Christian “evidentialism”, William Lane Craig.

I’d like to see Maitzen debate Craig, and more of Carrier and Loftus.

You, Luke, seem to have the necessary passion for this particular topic, as well as the intelligence and speaking capabilities to take on Craig. I’m waiting for Craig vs Muehlhauser!

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Mike Caton September 18, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Giving rationalists more tools to convince discussion partners is good, and in particular, I’ve found that being able to frame your thinking in terms that the theist will already accept is effective. (Salespeople will tell you that’s no surprise.) But there are two caveats. First, I think we (atheists) often focus too much on debates, as opposed to setting an example through long-term social contacts with theists and living a good life in front of them. I’m often hesitant to place great value on debates in terms of convincing the discussion partner or the audience. My favorite stat: when Hitch and D’Souza met in Colorado, they interviewed audience members before and after, and even Darth Hitchens himself scored only a 3% conversion.

The other criticism is that of course logic and factual credibility don’t always have the strongest appeal to human beings. They *should*, but they often or even usually don’t. So, maybe Ehrman’s response above was the most effective, even if it was sloppy. Granted, there’s a whole other argument to be had about the ethics and long-term effects of using rhetorical dirty tricks. But the point is, I think the average atheist is already a much clearer thinker and better debater than the average theist. Therefore, in the context of discussions with theists, the main value in learning scripture or apologist arguments I think is really to frame criticism of theism in a way that’s more palatable to theists.

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Garren September 18, 2010 at 12:40 pm

manicstreetpreacher,

While I agree that a public debate is not the place to get into a technical debate about Bayesian arguments, I can think of no rhetorically worse response than Ehrman’s “…if you think I’m going to change my mind because you have mathematical proof for the existence of God, I’m sorry, but it ain’t gonna happen!”

It comes off like an admission that the math is sound but Ehrman is so set in his ways that he disregards proof to the contrary. A better approach would be to point out that many individually dubious reports of alien abductions become strong evidence alien abductions really do occur by the same mathematical model. This may cause Christians to generate their own rebuttals to the general argument. At the very least it should undercut their enthusiasm for some math they don’t understand.

Going to try getting through Sobel’s response. I actually flipped through Logic and Theism in the library yesterday, but was intimidated by the amount of symbolic logic. Guess I didn’t take the title’s warning seriously enough!

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al friedlander September 18, 2010 at 1:35 pm

I agree with the sentiments of some of the other posters ITT.

The more I learn about the intricacies of debate, the more I become skeptical of its ‘validity’ in terms of ‘proving’ an argument. It feels like a courtroom, where the best lawyer wins.

I wouldn’t necessarily say ‘atheists’, but most ‘secularists’ are too busy with other worldly affairs. In contrast, apologists are trained to ‘preach for Christ’. They will devote their entire lives to make their case. If every atheist oriented their goals to ‘proving atheism’ in order to counter apologists, I’d be afraid of how it’d hinder society’s progress as a whole. Scientific results don’t materialize from verbal mud-slinging, it requires tedious empirical research.

Perhaps the best tool against theism isn’t in the realm of debate at all. That said, I understand the point of the article may be: “IF you’re going to debate theists -at all-, make sure you’re ready; don’t underestimate them”.

I feel that when atheists debate apologists, they’re automatically in ‘enemy territory’. It’s like playing chess against a person who’s learned all the tricks/patterns/quick checkmates/etc. You can’t play checkers, no, it -has- to be chess. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rocket scientist, to win the ‘debate’, you have to ‘learn chess’. It’s an uphill battle; I think this is why many theists rely so heavily on/love philosophy; it’s their home-court.

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Hermes September 18, 2010 at 2:19 pm

I feel that when atheists debate apologists, they’re automatically in ‘enemy territory’. It’s like playing chess against a person who’s learned all the tricks/patterns/quick checkmates/etc.

Worse. It’s more like Fizbin or Calvinball. I have learned the most important rule of the game.

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Patrick September 18, 2010 at 2:23 pm

I remember a quote from… maybe Phil Plait? I’m not sure. Basically he said that when debating conspiracy theorists, reasonable people always think they can win because they know the facts better than the conspiracy theorist. That may be so, but the conspiracy theorist knows the conspiracy theory far better than you do, and that’s the territory on which the debate will occur.

And that’s not even getting into the unwritten rules of the debate, in which your “win condition” differs vastly from your opponents, and in which your audience’s existing prejudices are more important than what your opponent actually says.

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Sharkey September 18, 2010 at 2:32 pm

al friedlander:

“The more I learn about the intricacies of debate, the more I become skeptical of its ‘validity’ in terms of ‘proving’ an argument. It feels like a courtroom, where the best lawyer wins.”

I agree. The central problem is this: there are many ways to be wrong, and few ways to be correct, due to the complexity of the description of truth, or the truth is simply unknown. Corollary: there are more short and pithy wrong statements than short and pithy correct statements.

Therefore, in a debate an antagonist can get out many wrong statements in a short period of time; ie, the Gish gallop. Even if the tide of the debate turns because of excellent preparation by the atheist, then the theist can just spout off more wrong statements, which the atheist may not have the background or the time to counteract.

Now, I don’t mean to excuse atheists from preparation, nor assume that atheists are automatically correct. I just agree the debate format is bad at determining truth, especially given that human discourse is biased towards falsehood.

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lukeprog September 18, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Patrick,

That’s a great quote.

Hermes,

Ahhhhh, I loved WarGames growing up.

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Patrick September 18, 2010 at 6:15 pm

Well, its more of a paraphrase from the memory of some podcast somewhere than an actual quote. So please don’t quote me.

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Hermes September 18, 2010 at 6:23 pm

Patrick, if you wrote it, who else should be quoted? :-}

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Jon Hanson September 18, 2010 at 6:45 pm

I see your point with Christopher Hitchens’ argument, but to me it seems like while it doesn’t do what he thinks it might do, isn’t it a good rebuttal to those who imply atheism suffers from infinite regress while theism doesn’t? Also, couldn’t it be said that an infinite regression of naturalistic explanations is bad enough but adding in an infinite regress of unnatural, unverifiable theoretical causal agents is just making a bad situation the worst possible situation?

I definitely agree that we don’t need to know the back story of a god to believe it exists, but theists are the ones who say we need to explain what happened before the big bang or abiogenesis or else god wins by default.

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oarobin September 19, 2010 at 12:23 am

luke,
while these are interesting examples of atheists’ making irrelevant arguments in debates i am even more interested in how how you decide when one side has won or lost. presumably you consider the arguments presented on the other side relevant but either having already been refuted or shown to have serious problems in the philosophical & scientific literature.
so in these debates where one side presents irrelevant arguments and the other side present relevant but fatally flawed arguments how does one side “win” this debate and what is your opinion on purpose of these kinds of debates in general?

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manicstreetpreacher September 19, 2010 at 3:40 am

Garren

I think Ehrman’s response to Craig’s Bayes calculation was precisely the response it deserved, which was none whatsoever!

MSP

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maynard September 19, 2010 at 3:43 am

It is in a debate where arguments or reasoning can be tested and confronted with counterarguments RIGHT AWAY.

The arguments presented by the theist should be refuted/rebutted by the atheist and after that the atheist should show his own argument and explain why it’s the better explanation.

In the case of Craig vs Ehrman, Erhman was not able to rebut/refute Craig’s Bayes’ Theorem presentation.(Nice point here by Lukeprog)

Let REASON prevail! (and debates are about reasons)

Thanks Luke for the very objective analysis.

I’m also looking for the Craig vs Muehlhauser debate!

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manicstreetpreacher September 19, 2010 at 3:52 am

Maynard

Craig would be too scared to debate Luke. Atheist bloggers know Craig’s “arguments”, his cheap debating tricks and how to refute them better than any of his actual opponents.

Muehlhauser would cheap up!

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Hermes September 19, 2010 at 3:53 am

Count me as another person interested in a Craig vs Muehlhauser debate, yet with one caveat; make it a written dialog. Bonus if it has a comment thread for the audience.

For those who prefer one with the audience in a sequestered auditorium that lacks a related comment thread that they can express themselves directly in, consider the recent David Berlinski and Christopher Hitchens debate on the topic of “Does atheism Poison everything?”.

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Hermes September 19, 2010 at 6:11 am

Along the lines of what I was writing about yesterday — where the deity often discussed is a hybrid — one or more deistic/pantheist/platonic archetypes plus bits and pieces of dogmatic/scriptural/social/personal ideas — the Christian fractional subset is also invisible and a shapeshifter.

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mojo.rhythm September 19, 2010 at 6:13 am

Hermes,

Ditto.

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Jacopo September 19, 2010 at 6:19 am

@al friedlander – Well said. I think that philosophy is the best place to couch weird beliefs and religious believers know this.

Science is often a refuge too, but here the rules of the game are far more strict and it’s a lot easier to obviously ‘lose’. In philosophy you can get away with almost any defence, and because of the lack of any absolute rules that must be obeyed (you can argue in philosophy for not respecting evidence, logic, shared experience, and all the normal rules of belief formation and revision), you can defend almost any position to the death, if you put in enough work to defend it.

Dennett once implied that its a mistake to argue against theism as if it’s a rival scientific theory. Maybe he was right. Unless you really enjoy this sort of thing, move on to something else.

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Joel September 19, 2010 at 6:52 am

@al friedlander – Well said. I think that philosophy is the best place to couch weird beliefs and religious believers know this. Science is often a refuge too, but here the rules of the game are far more strict and it’s a lot easier to obviously ‘lose’. In philosophy you can get away with almost any defence, and because of the lack of any absolute rules that must be obeyed (you can argue in philosophy for not respecting evidence, logic, shared experience, and all the normal rules of belief formation and revision), you can defend almost any position to the death, if you put in enough work to defend it.Dennett once implied that its a mistake to argue against theism as if it’s a rival scientific theory. Maybe he was right. Unless you really enjoy this sort of thing, move on to something else.  

I’m afraid the standards of philosophy may have dropped even further with the advent of Christian philosophy.

Let me mock reformed epistemology here. Reformed epistemology is basically faith. Faith says that you can know things, by intuition, without epistemic justifcation. Reformed epistemology basically says that intuition is epistemic justification. And this is simply dishonest, since anyone can say “tis a basic belief”. Using this method, we can get to contradictory premises.

The Holy Ghost part is even worse, since that part says that, if God exists, people can know that God (the Christian one, not the 99999999 other ones) exists through the Holy Ghost’s presence, such that normal epistemic justification is not required for rational belief in God. This is a mere tautology, much like the anthropic principle. And it quite obviously begs the question against the skeptic who wants to know whether God exists, and whether we have evidence for his existence.

So, no, I don’t think that it’s just philosophy, but the nature of the theistic defences used in philosophy. The creationist science movement is just as bad, and that is empirical.

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Steve September 19, 2010 at 6:56 am

That quote of Dawkins is somewhat out of context. Dawkins says that God fails to describe organized complexity in life because god is itself an example of organized complexity. It’s inadequate not because of an infinite regress, but because it simply fails to explain the thing it sets out to explain.

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Jacopo September 19, 2010 at 8:08 am

@Joel – but here’s the thing, although I wouldn’t quarrel with criticisms of reformed epistemology or such like, you can be sure that Plantinga would have an answer to any objection you (or I, or Oppy, or Stephen Law &c.) could possibly come up with. It’s rare in philosophy that something is said that pretty much everyone agrees is false. The verification principle is one such example, but there aren’t a lot of others, at least that I can think of.

This is what Oppy points out early in his Arguing About Gods. There just aren’t any reasons that you can lay out to an informed, reasonable person (e.g. Swinburne, Plantinga) that you could say ‘you must accept this or you are being irrational’. Ditto, there’s nothing they have to offer either where failure to accept it is irrational.

The creationism thing is interesting but ultimately, so long as you are playing by the minimal rules of scientific revision belief, creationism is just wrong. So long as you go ‘I am just going to let the findings of science justify my beliefs about the world’ then the creationist loses. It’s illuminating that recent attempts to bolster creationism in ID have ‘philosophized’ the defence, talking about science promoting naturalism and thus being religious and so on – and so moving on to philosophy of science. They know that if they had to present any research program to rival that of evolutionary science they’d lose, so they move to the far murkier waters of philosophy instead.

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Jacopo September 19, 2010 at 8:09 am

* by ‘reasons’ in the second paragraph, I mean reasons for giving up theistic belief, or the converse.

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Reidish September 19, 2010 at 11:16 am

Joel,
You wrote:

Reformed epistemology is basically faith. Faith says that you can know things, by intuition, without epistemic justifcation.

But you wouldn’t conclude that intuition is not epistemic justification, would you? We know the law of modus ponens by intuition, so are we not epistemically justified to believe in modus ponens?

Reformed epistemology basically says that intuition is epistemic justification.

Yes, but that’s not unique to reformed epistemology. It’s also true for Rationalism, for example.

And this is simply dishonest, since anyone can say “tis a basic belief”.

I don’t know about the dishonesty bit. But I will say that for a belief to be considered “properly basic” in this context (I think this is what you meant), the belief needs to be plausible on the epistemological model provided.

Using this method, we can get to contradictory premises.

Contradictory to what?

The Holy Ghost part is even worse, since that part says that, if God exists, people can know that God (the Christian one, not the 99999999 other ones) exists through the Holy Ghost’s presence, such that normal epistemic justification is not required for rational belief in God. This is a mere tautology, much like the anthropic principle.

No, it’s not a tautology, merely a plausible conditional: If the Christian God exists, then He would design and create us to know Him in this way. But that’s not tautological, for it seems to me possible that the contrary of this conditional could be true as well.

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John Elbing September 19, 2010 at 1:32 pm

I have always felt that in the scientific “infinite regress”, each step points to a simpler underlying building block. With the open question of the next level of even simpler building blocks.
The religious “infinite regress” jumps back up to the infinitely complex to explain any given phenomena. Which correctly raises the question of how they will be able to get all the way back down the stairs…
We do not “require that a good explanation for something must itself be explained”, we require a progression from the complex to the simpler, even if we have (can) not reach the end of the chain of explanations.

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Dean Dough September 19, 2010 at 7:40 pm

Luke,

I know I’m jumping in late to this discussion, but I just finished listening to many of the debates you listed between Craig and several defenders of atheism.

It seems to me that one of the greatest weaknesses displayed by the atheist debaters is relative ignorance of the Bible and conservative Christian theology. I guess they are willing to give Craig the benefit of the doubt that he speaks accurately about what the Bible says/means. For many of them that may be a practical necessity, but by doing so they miss some huge openings. Since Craig argues as an orthodox Christian, showing that his arguments are inconsistent with Biblical teaching or are heavily disputed by other orthodox Christians weakens them.

For example, in Craig’s debate with Bradley he made an argument defending infinite punishments in hell by 1.) conceding that human sins committed on earth are deserving of only finite punishments, and 2.) the reason sinners are punished with eternal hell is that they eternally continue to sin by hating God. A very strong case can be made against this claim on the grounds of Biblical interpretation. Romans 1:32, taken the way Craig must take it, directly contradicts his concession in point 1. Regarding point 2, the prophetic pictures of the consummation present God’s enemies as destroyed or submissive to him and his people. The NT pictures of eternal suffering do not ever even hint that those being punished continue to rebel against God. There is nothing in passages such as Phil 2:9-11 to suggest that the damned are either excluded from the “every” or are included but are only doing so because they are somehow “forced” to. Craig’s idea comes from the “freedom of the will” defense, not a teaching of the Bible. (Full disclosure: I was trained in Reformed theology.) Had Bradley known this, Craig would have been in much greater trouble than he already was.

Another example: Craig in almost every debate argued that it is presumptuous for humans to judge whether human suffering is justified due to our limitations. We are simply not in a position to question God’s decision to inflict temporal sufferings on human beings. A direct refutation of this is quick to hand in Ex. 32:1-14. I won’t bore you with detailed exegesis of this passage. It is enough to note that Moses violates a direct command of God in order to argue with him about the destruction of Israel for their worship of the golden calf, and he is not only not punished himself, he wins the argument. On the basis of Craig’s argument Moses committed a sin and God’s relenting is pure grace not just toward Israel but toward Moses too. But on its face this is a poor reading of the text.

I’ve already gone on too long, but a lot more could be said in criticism of the theological underpinnings of Craig’s arguments.

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Hermes September 19, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Dean, that’s interesting. It’s hard to argue against your main point, and I would not want to. Thanks for the details.

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James Onen September 19, 2010 at 9:56 pm

@ Dean Dough

I just read the Ex. 32:1-14 passage. Ha ha… its hilarious.

Moses debated God, and won :-)

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Haecceitas September 19, 2010 at 10:45 pm

Dean,

Your suposed scriptural refutations of Craig’s position are very much open to debate, so they are not slam-dunk arguments that would destroy Craig’s position in any way. But even more importantly, they are irrelevant for most of the debates that Craig does. Probably well over 90% of his debates are either on the existence of God or on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Even the latter topic isn’t about theology as such as far as Craig is concerned, since he doesn’t build his case on the divine inspiration of the Bible but rather treats it as a collection of historical sources.

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Joel September 20, 2010 at 12:22 am

Reidish,

I wouldn’t say that the basic laws of logic are based upon intuition. It’s more of the fact that you can’t put up a proper attack on one of the laws without presupposing it. Suppose that I attack the law of non-contradiction, where something that is true cannot also be its negation. I argue that A can be equal to -A. But if it is true that A can be equal to -A, and the law of identity does not hold, then the argument’s negation can also be true (that A cannot be equal to -A). So I cannot argue coherently against the laws of logic. You might call this intuition, but wouldn’t ‘reason’ be a better name? And reason can act as epistemic justification. After all, epistemic justification is not only empirical.

I agree that this may well be what we understand as intuition. But isn’t this limited only to analytic, trivially true statements? Surely it cannot be extended to the contingent, empirical world. So, no, we can’t use intuition as epistemic justification where the reformed epistemistemologists would like us to: in regards to the external world.

In regards to the question of what contradictory premises we can get to if we use the reformed epistemological model: I can treat belief in God’s non-existence as properly basic, along with magic etc. The theist can treat belief in God’s existence as properly basic. I can treat supernatural supervenience on nature as properly basic; you may not think so. So therein lies the contradictory conclusions that we arrive at if we allow reformed epistemology to run away with itself. So reformed epistemology is not a valid epistemological position.

The only kinds of properly basic beliefs are those like your having a subjective experience right now (or, having a subjective experience right now, since “you” aren’t really needed for the experiencing, though that’s arguable). These are the really incorrigible beliefs, and are vastly different from trying to prove the existence of external objects. Reformed epistemologists like to argue that belief in God is as justified as belief in the external world, and belief in external minds, and so on, in that those beliefs can’t be rationally justified as well. But they can: by argument to to best explanation. God’s existence can also be argued for with the argument to best explanation too. These beliefs are not basic, since they are not incorrigible. I can conceive of an external world not existing right now, or God not existing right now, and so on.

In regards to the final point: I apologize; you are correct. It is, indeed, not a tautology, since the premise (that God exists), is broader than , and different from, the conclusion (God will allow for non-epistemic means of knowing that he exists). All I would like to point out is that non-epistemic belief in God will still beg the question against the skeptic who questions God’s existence. In fact, I don’t understand what non-epistemic belief in God will be like. If God can indeed touch us through inner experiences, then such divine experiences should be A) distinct from false divine experiences and B) distinct from other highly emotionally charged experiences. But this seems not to be so different.

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Dean Dough September 20, 2010 at 5:06 am

@Haecceitas

I agree my interpretations are open to debate. That’s par for the course with Biblical exegesis. Trust me; I’ve lived in the evangelical subculture for some 30 years. Of the two examples given above the first is far more secure. If it’s so open to debate, show me a counter-argument based on exegesis (as opposed to the abundant counter-assertions made by Arminian orthodox Christians).

The second is directly relevant to one of Craig’s most frequent rebuttals to the argument from the existence of evil. Craig’s own doctrine of Scripture forces him not to ignore my interpretation of Ex. 32:1-14. He either has to provide a more convincing interpretation or drop the argument. Evangelicals in the audience will expect him to do the former; and if he tries to dodge the issue, he will most certainly hear about it from at least the more acute of them afterwards.

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Mazen Abdallah September 20, 2010 at 6:46 am

I don’t feel that two of the points presented hold true:

1) Hitchen’s comment can be salvaged as:
‘You propose to solve a mystery but end up right where you began’. If the explanation you provide only covers up one hole with a bigger hole than it’s not acceptable

2) As for moral realism, i really do believe that at face value you can provide evidence that secularists, agnostics and atheists are moral as evidence that your opponent is just trying to be offensive rather than seriously argue a point.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes these PhD qualified theists are just throwing mud and being academic about it

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Haecceitas September 20, 2010 at 8:18 am

Dean Dough,

“Of the two examples given above the first is far more secure. If it’s so open to debate, show me a counter-argument based on exegesis (as opposed to the abundant counter-assertions made by Arminian orthodox Christians).”

You may have an argument here, but you didn’t actually present it. You only made reference to Romans 1:32 without any explanation. I don’t find anything there that would require one to hold that the proposition “human sins committed on earth are deserving of only finite punishments” is false. Is it the part about certain things being “worthy of death” that makes you think otherwise?

“Craig’s own doctrine of Scripture forces him not to ignore my interpretation of Ex. 32:1-14. He either has to provide a more convincing interpretation or drop the argument.”

I don’t think that Craig holds to such “biblicist” presuppositions as would be needed to make your argument work here. As far as I know, he’s completely willing to let the “big picture” guide his exegesis of some particular passages, and I don’t blame him. That seems to me to be completely warranted. So even if we suppose that he would need to hold to an interpretation of Ex. 32:1-14 that is not the most obvious one on the basis of exegetical considerations alone, that will only be a small point against him.

Having said all that, I’m not even convinced that the most obvious interpretation (granting certain Christian presuppositions concerning the nature of the Scripture) IS against Craig here. I suppose we could debate the issue further, but the longer that debate would last, the more it would count against your original point since it would illustrate that Craig’s atheist opponents probably could not turn these issues into quick and easy arguments against Craig’s position in a debate setting without using too much of their time.

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Reidish September 20, 2010 at 8:52 am

Hi Joel,

I agree that this [the law of non-contradiction] may well be what we understand as intuition. But isn’t this limited only to analytic, trivially true statements?

So we agree that laws of logic can be known by intuition: we “just see” the modus ponens inference, for example. Regarding your question, I have two points. First, I think this realm of knowledge can apply to any deductive argument, meaning that it forms at least part of the epistemic justification for the conclusion of any such argument. Since I don’t consider all deductive arguments trivially true, I don’t think it applies only to trivially true statements. Second, even if we grant that it does apply to trivially true statements, it’s still a form of epistemic justification for those propositions. Therefore, intuition is sufficient for epistemic justification on at least some forms of knowledge.

In regards to the question of what contradictory premises we can get to if we use the reformed epistemological model: I can treat belief in God’s non-existence as properly basic, along with magic etc. The theist can treat belief in God’s existence as properly basic.

Alright, I see your point, but I think it results from a misapplication of the entire RE project. If a similar account of warrant could be given for such a belief (ie, the non-existence of God) that also, of course, postulated an atheist metaphysic, then I would agree with you. But I’m not aware of such an account of warrant – are you? Regardless of these points, I am sympathetic to your view, and partly for that reason am not a proponent of RE.

Reformed epistemologists like to argue that belief in God is as justified as belief in the external world, and belief in external minds, and so on, in that those beliefs can’t be rationally justified as well. But they can: by argument to to best explanation.

This isn’t the argument. The “argument” is that belief in other minds is rational, irrespective of the available argumentation for that belief. So, this is evidence that there is something that makes our true beliefs knowledge that is not founded on deductive arguments. The RE project then proceeds (I skipped a lot of steps) to a conclusion that belief in God can be rational (indeed, properly basic) given the account of warrant so developed.

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Eneasz September 20, 2010 at 9:13 am

I gotta say, I have some problems with Randy Helzerman’s video re Bayes Law and Miracle claims.

My first contention is that no good Bayesian should ever set the probability of anything at 0 or 1. That should be literally impossible for exactly the reason that Randy pointed out – it makes you inflexibly dogmatic. It could probably be considered a sin against Bayes (to use a religious metaphor).

My second contention is that no one actually sets the probability of any belief at 0 or 1 in real life. People are surprisingly flexible about beliefs, even ones that they claim to know to be true with their whole soul.

Given both 1 and 2, I don’t think the linked video has anything to say at all on the subject.

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Dean Dough September 20, 2010 at 11:21 am

@Haecceitas

I appreciate your thoughtfulness on this.

“You may have an argument here, but you didn’t actually present it. You only made reference to Romans 1:32 without any explanation. I don’t find anything there that would require one to hold that the proposition “human sins committed on earth are deserving of only finite punishments” is false. Is it the part about certain things being ‘worthy of death’ that makes you think otherwise?”

You got it, baby! You will find that the vast majority of exegetes who believe in eternal, conscious torment of the damned understand Paul’s use of “death” in Romans 1:32 to refer to that torment. I have to wonder if Craig holds to his position on “finite sins” anymore; it is out of the orthodox evangelical mainstream.

As for Craig’s “we are not in a position to judge” counter to the atheist argument from superfluous evil, the point is to force Craig either to explain how his argument doesn’t condemn Moses along with atheists, fall back on ugly texts such as Paul’s non-argument in Romans 9:19ff, or drop his counter. I suppose he could come back with a quick ad hominem such as, “Moses was no atheist.” As in the case of the “finite sins” issue, the point is to raise suspicions in the audience’s mind that Craig is willing to make arguments inconsistent with his authoritative text in order to defend a religion supposedly based on it. I happen to believe that is precisely what he does.

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cl September 20, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Luke,

I really love it when you do apply the standards equally – which I believe is far more often than not – and these three examples are outstanding, IMO.

It’s called the “why regress” because no matter what explanation is given of something, you can always still ask “Why?”

Chills. I just typed that to Ken Pulliam regarding his “why didn’t the Bible say this-or-that” approach. One can ask “why” about anything. To base arguments on “why” questions is to practically invite arguments from ignorance and incredulity.

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antiplastic September 20, 2010 at 1:04 pm

To base arguments on “why” questions is to practically invite arguments from ignorance and incredulity.

The theist claims (indeed, must claim) to have discovered a terminus to the why-regress.

When it is demonstrated that the finality is epistemically, logically, and empirically an open question, the only responses available are some combination of special pleading and naked dogmatism. That’s all it takes to refute the argument. Luke is just off base on this.

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cl September 20, 2010 at 2:08 pm

antiplastic,

Your position is unclear: are you agreeing or disagreeing with the claim, “To base arguments on “why” questions is to practically invite arguments from ignorance and incredulity” ? If so, on what grounds?

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Jugglable September 20, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Luke should debate William Lane Craig.

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Chris September 20, 2010 at 8:36 pm

Sean McDowell’s argument that if God doesn’t exist then objective morality doesn’t exist either doesn’t make sense. Objective things should exist whether God exists or not? Am I wrong on this? That’s the definition of objective. By saying that ‘objective morality ceases to exist once God doesn’t exist’ proves that morality is subjective – subjective to God (well, their interpretation of God).

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Hermes September 21, 2010 at 6:37 am

Chris, I don’t think you’re missing a thing. Well said.

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Brian_G September 21, 2010 at 8:56 pm

“I said atheists lose for lack of time. The theist’s explanation for fine-tuning (“God did it”) requires 3 seconds to say, while the atheist’s scientific explanation could take over an hour. In a debate, the clock is everything.”

How long does it take to say multiverse? I don’t think lack of time is a fair excuse. If time is an issue, it should be the problem for the theist. In any other debate I’ve heard, it’s the affirmative side that has the biggest challenge. It’s much easier to raise an objection, than to answer it.

If you watch any of Craig’s debates he usually only gives the bare bone arguments for God. Honestly, I don’t even find them that persuasive in such a summarised form. I’ve found that he’s best debates are when the critic can object to his pre-written opening statement, because then he gets the chance to spell our his argument in more detail.

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Hermes September 21, 2010 at 9:45 pm

Brian_G, non-theists (not just non-Christians) can’t make things up, but have to explain things to those who do. Succinctness in such situations is difficult.

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Randy Helzerman September 27, 2010 at 8:17 am

@ Eneasz

Quick note to answer some of your comments about my video: (1) What probability would you assign to a contradiction? According to the axioms of probability theory, you should assign it zero probability. Now, the statement “Jesus rose from the dead because he is God” is flatly contradictory to an atheists prior beliefs, so atheists will assign it a zero probability. (2) Your second point seems to be that Bayesian methods really aren’t apropos for modeling religious beliefs. That’s probably true, but recall it wasn’t me or Ehreman who drug Bayesianism into this, it was William Lane Craig. If you want to win the debate with him, you have to give a more convincing answer than “you’re just wrong”.

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Cody November 25, 2010 at 9:23 pm

This page has flawed logic. First of all, you assume that there can be a “winner” and a “loser” in atheist-theist debates. Not possible, since there is no definitive evidence for either side, and the “winner” and “loser” is left up to the perception of the listeners/readers of the debate. Also, you cite a reason for the fallacy of atheists as not proving atheism. I have not once seen a theist propose proof for God. Besides things of an emotional, diluted perceptual nature, that is.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 25, 2010 at 10:40 pm

*sigh*

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jonesy January 4, 2011 at 1:00 pm

On Hitchens’s “Who designed the Designer?” – This isn’t an “elementary misunderstanding” of science. It’s a proper rebuttal to the cosmological argument to show its flaws. The cosmological argument concludes God or a creator based on ultimately nothing more than that the universe exists. If something requires a creator for simply existing, then God needs a creator as well.

But the cosmological argument is fallacious because it assumes the universe can’t exist without a creator based 0n the unfounded premise that everything must have a “cause” or “beginning” (and even if it could be proved a cause is required, it also assumes that the cause must then be a “conscious creator”). Asking “Who designed the Designer?” (and any response) shows up theist argument as a special pleading fallacy. It’s also special pleading to call Hitchens’s question a “why regress” but not the theist’s “what caused the universe?” question. (Though, again, the theist’s question is unfounded.)

Also, there is nothing wrong with asking “why?” regressively; that”s how science progresses. There is only a problem when you don’t when to stop and accept “I don’t know” as an answer and feel you need to make one up just to get rid of uncertainty.

The most proper and well founded answer to “why is there this universe?” is “it’s unknown.” Anything else is speculation.

I didn’t hear the debate so maybe Hitchens presented that answer poorly, but it is not a bad response if presented competently.

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jonesy January 4, 2011 at 2:29 pm

I do agree Ehrman responded poorly to the Bayes argument (which has an easy response if understood — that [ Pr (not-R/B) × Pr (E/ B & not-R) ] is in fact high, or to put it casually that when considering Craig’s “evidence,” Pr (not-R/B&E) is much higher than Pr (R/ B&E) because there are collectively lots of more likely not-R explanations considering the “evidence” and “background” than any R explanation – for example, that the Bible R stories are all made up or are misperceptions is more likely than that the stories are honest and that R is true, given B – the background knowledge that humans commonly make up stuff and misperceive stuff and that what medical science tells us about resurrections; and if Craig wants to say a supernatural R by God makes it more likely, he’s still on the unlikely or unfounded side of things because he’s only begging the question of God and supernaturalism).

I did hear the Ehrman debate and what I most remember thinking is that Craig is a dick for the “Bart’s Blunder” slide, and that the slimy tactic shows him up for what he is, someone more interested in “winning” than in finding or elucidating truth. Public oral debates aren’t fertile venues for truth. They are brain candy.

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Luke Muehlhauser January 4, 2011 at 3:19 pm

jonesy,

I quoted Hitchens directly. That particular rendition of the objection is an elementary misunderstanding of science. You’re seeking to find similar objections that aren’t so bad, but they are not the objection Hitchens explicitly made.

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jonesy January 4, 2011 at 7:56 pm

@lukeprog
I didn’t question your quote. I commented on why it isn’t necessarily a bad response. I think you are misapplying a “why regress” here when it’s really a way to point out an inconsistency in the theist argument (that the universe needs a cause but their creator doesn’t), if that is the angle Hitchens was going for.

What makes you say it was a misunderstanding of “science” though? Was the Hitchens quote in the context of appealing to science? Even if it were said in such a context, I’m not sure it’s a misunderstanding. Usually, science has little to do with these EoG debates.

I think Hitchens does make bad arguments at times, but I don’t see this as one.

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Luke Muehlhauser January 4, 2011 at 8:30 pm

jonesy,

Every single successful scientific hypothesis is subject to the exact same ‘why-regress’ that Hitchens complains about with regard to the God hypothesis. There are reasons that the God hypothesis is a bad explanation for things, but the fact that it is subject to a why-regress is not one of those reasons.

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jonesy January 4, 2011 at 10:32 pm

lukeprog, you’re not responding to what I’ve said about the argument and are just repeating assertions, and I desire to stop banging my head now, so I’ll leave it that.

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propater April 1, 2011 at 6:05 am

I do agree Ehrman responded poorly to the Bayes argument (which has an easy response if understood —that [ Pr (not-R/B)× Pr (E/ B & not-R) ] is in fact high, or to put it casually that when considering Craig’s “evidence,” Pr (not-R/B&E) is much higher than Pr (R/ B&E)because there are collectively lots of more likely not-R explanations considering the “evidence” and “background” than any R explanation – for example, that the Bible R stories are all made up or are misperceptions is more likely than that the stories are honest and that R is true, given B – the background knowledge that humans commonly make up stuff and misperceive stuff and that what medical science tells us about resurrections; and if Craig wants to say a supernatural R by God makes it more likely, he’s still on the unlikely or unfounded side of things because he’s only begging the question of God and supernaturalism).

Maybe I have my probabilities wrong but for me, Craig’s complicated formula is of the form : Pr(A) = Pr(A) / Pr(A) x Pr(non-A) which can be simplified into Pr(A) = 1 / Pr(non-A) which is a truism…

If Pr(A) is low, of course Pr(non-A) is going to be high, so Craig has no point in saying that [ Pr (not-R/B) × Pr (E/ B & not-R) ] could be low, hence Pr (R/ B&E) can be high… It cannot because [ Pr (not-R/B) × Pr (E/ B & not-R) ] is equal to 1 / [ Pr (not-R/B) × Pr (E/ B & not-R) ], the other term of the denominator.

Craig conditionnal probabilities just manage to obfuscate the fact that he utters a truism that brings no insight in the debate.

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